Manuscript trove illuminates the roots of chemistry

A chemical "recipe" extract of work by Johannes De Rupescissa and others, on parchment, smudged.
A chemical "recipe" extract of work by Johannes De Rupescissa and others, on parchment, smudged. (©Les Enluminures)
Posted: November 27, 2013

It's not every day that you have the opportunity to buy a 600-year-old cookbook. It's even rarer that the ancient handwritten recipes detail how to create the Philosopher's Stone - essential in transforming base metals into gold.

So it's hardly a surprise that James R. Voelkel, rare-book curator at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, 315 Chestnut St., was intrigued to learn that Joost R. Ritman's Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, an Amsterdam library of philosophical arcana and "secrets," might bring a number of manuscripts to the market.

"People frequently ask, 'What kind of manuscripts do you have?' " Voelkel said recently in the rare-book room of the foundation's Othmer Library, devoted to the history of chemistry and science. "Well, we have almost entirely printed books. But these 15th-century alchemical manuscripts are so rare that, buying them one at a time, it would not be clear that we could build up a collection if we just got the odd thing that came on the market. So getting all of these things at once, all of a sudden, was an opportunity."

Acting quickly, the foundation snapped up a sheaf of manuscripts, largely related to alchemy, the proto-chemistry best known for its obsessive focus on finding a process to make gold from base metals.

But alchemy was, in fact, not just the province of crackpots and mystics; a growing body of scholarship treats it as a precursor of modern science. Alchemists studied chemical transformations and viewed the world as an unending chain of changes and reactions.

The foundation, which began at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s and became an independent scholarly center, library, and museum in 1987, has 160,000 journals and books focused on the history of chemistry. In its 6,000-volume rare-book collection, 1,000 deal with alchemy. Some scientific greats, including Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, both richly represented in the collection, pondered alchemical processes extensively.

The library has now acquired nine manuscripts and a set of three 15th-century allegorical images on parchment that once, long ago, were part of illuminated manuscripts.

Voelkel unlocked a wood cabinet faced with mesh and took out a substantial volume, Petrus Bonus' Pretiosa margarita novella ( The Precious New Pearl), hand-lettered on paper in Latin in Spain circa 1450. He placed it gently on a cushion and opened it.

"This is the reason that we bought this collection, this is the manuscript that I really wanted the most," he said. "It is about 1450, which is just about the time Gutenberg starts experimenting [with printing] and about five years before the Gutenberg Bible. . . . There are, of this book, six complete copies, and as of yet there hasn't been a definitive edition. So anybody who wants to do the definitive edition of this text has to come and look at this copy. It's at the forefront."

The book is a copy of a text written around 1330 by a doctor in Ferrara, Italy, and places alchemical ideas in the broader context of 14th-century philosophy and theology - in Voelkel's words, "a discussion of the arguments for and against alchemy."

Next he took out a small, thick volume, bound in red leather decorated with nail heads forming stars within circles.

"This one is also very interesting," he said, placing on the cushion a cookbook in Latin. "There are something like 500 different recipes in here. This belonged to the genre in literature in which different . . . chemical recipes are brought together for all different kinds of things - from making perfumes to making toothpaste to treating diseases to transmuting base metals into gold, making dyes, inks."

The volume, dating from about 1430, was copied out in northern Italy. It contains well over 500 recipes and discusses the possibility of transmuting metals, offering various metallurgical directions. "There are numerous recipes related to metal working, always closely related to alchemy, as well as medical recipes [for humans and animals], household, cosmetic, and agricultural recipes," noted Lawrence M. Principe, professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins University, who wrote a description of the acquisitions for the foundation.

Essentially, Voelkel said, the book demonstrates the importance of alchemical labors to very early chemistry. Alchemists above all focused on how chemical reactions transformed substances: "How do you manipulate the stuff around you to make things that are useful," he said. "But also there are things we know work in here and things that don't work. This tradition of doing stuff with chemistry goes back to the magicians. That's where chemistry comes from - being able to make semiprecious things look precious, being able to make something look like gold that isn't."

Another book, a 15th-century recipe compilation of work by Johannes De Rupescissa and others, is written on parchment, not paper, and the pages are smudged and stained with what looks like soot.

"It looks like somebody had this in the lab with them cause of all this gray and black smudge on page after page," Voelkel said. "This kind of points to the . . . engagement of those alchemists both with texts and with the lab. A fair number of alchemical books have this kind of staining."

The manuscripts and illuminated paintings are not yet on display; talks are underway about the best way to exhibit them.

It will not be the foundation's first exhibition of alchemical materials. There is a current show of alchemical images painted on glass (free and open to the public) and a major exhibition from the foundation art collection of genre paintings focusing on alchemy, largely as a foolish endeavor. The paintings, on the library mezzanine, are open to the public by appointment.

The main museum, with artifacts showing the evolution of chemistry and science, is free and open to the public Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"What's interesting to me about the history of alchemy is that after the chemical revolution, when chemists and others realized that elements could not be broken down and transmuted one into the other, it became clear that was never possible," said Voelkel. "The assumption was that the people that wrote about it were delusional: They talked about doing it and it's not possible, therefore what they were talking about was false and delusional and foolish. It's a reasonable conclusion, looking back from the surety of the 19th century.

"But the false conclusion was that they were doing nothing. What we're learning now is that they were actually very capable chemists who were experimenting with transforming substances one into the other."


ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594 @SPSalisbury

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